As Turkish-Israeli relations reveal fresh signs of tension, Ankara appears to be moving closer to its two Arab neighbors, Syria and Iraq. On October 13, the first ministerial meeting of the Turkey-Syria High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council began in the Syrian city of Aleppo, and then continued in Turkey’s border city of Antep. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, state ministers Hayati Yazici and Cevdet Yilmaz, Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul participated in the meeting along with the interior, health, transportation, agriculture and rural affairs, energy and natural resources as well as the environment and forestry ministers. “The main slogan of this meeting is ‘common destiny, history and future,’ and we will build the future together,” Davutoglu said, noting that Turkey and Syria are pursuing economic integration, and hoped that their relations will become a model for other neighboring countries (Anadolu Ajansi, October 13).
As part of establishing good relations with Syria, both countries have lifted the visa requirements on Turkish and Syrian citizens visiting either country. This is considered as a first step toward economic and political integration between the two countries. Given that Aleppo and Antep are the two historic cities in the region that are known to be the center of bilateral trade, the decision to lift the visa restrictions is expected to boost the economies on each side of the border. In addition, they signed agreements to deepen military cooperation. During the press conference after the ministerial meetings it was revealed that Turkey and Syria will hold joint military exercises (Hurriyet, October 13). Apart from a local military exercise in the border areas in spring 2008, the Turkish and Syrian militaries have not previously held such exercises. The timing of the announcement to conduct joint military exercises has aroused concern among international observers, because of Ankara’s decision to postpone the international part of the Anadolu Kartali (Anatolian Eagle) military exercise, in which Israel and the U.S. were due to participate (www.tsk.mil.tr, October 9).
Ankara has also taken another step toward establishing deeper relations with Iraq. On October 15, Turkish and Iraqi ministers met in Baghdad under the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council to discuss opportunities and obstacles between the two countries. During the meeting 48 agreements were signed, ranging from combating the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to energy cooperation and water resources. Iraq is Turkey’s second biggest export market outside Europe, receiving $3.4 billion-net worth of goods in the first eight months of this year, an increase of 48 percent on the same period in 2008, according to the Turkish statistics office (Hurriyet, Daily News, October 16).
As far as the PKK issue is concerned, it appears that Turkey has changed its traditional approach to holding Iraqi Kurdish leaders responsible for the PKK’s camps in Northern Iraq. Ankara has long experienced problematic relations with the Kurds in Iraq. However, during the meeting Erdogan revealed that Turkey plans to open a consulate in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (Today’s Zaman, October 16).
Regarding energy cooperation, the agreements project that Iraqi gas will fill the Nabucco pipeline, a project intended to carry fuel from the Caspian region via Turkey to Europe. Iraq may contribute approximately 8 billion cubic meters of gas to Nabucco, or more than a quarter of the total volume (Hurriyet Daily News, October 16). The gas deal is a project that the U.S. has strongly urged Turkey to consider in order to bring Iraqi gas into the global market. Washington regards Iraqi gas as a viable alternative to Iran, which Ankara considers to be an option for its domestic consumption (EDM, November 21, 2008; June 24, 2008).
“Postponing” the military exercise with Israel and establishing strategic relations with Iraq and Syria has raised concern among Western observers, as to whether Turkey is shifting its traditional Western oriented policy preferences in favor of Middle Eastern countries. However, to address these concerns, it could be argued that while Turkey considers public sensitivity over Gaza, East Jerusalem, al-Aqsa mosque and the overall crisis in the Middle East, its fundamental foreign policy preferences are not shaped by this factor. In fact, Ankara has developed its foreign policy agenda based on the logic of re-establishing its strategic importance for the West, and to become part of the E.U., rather than against the West. The military exercise crisis between Israel and Turkey is not one related to strategic preferences, but it is a way of showing its sensitivity to assuage Arab public opinion.